On the Guru-Shishya Sambandha (Relationship between Guru and Shishya)
William James once wrote a famous book on the ‘varieties of religious experience.’ Similarly, there are many varieties of the ‘guru experience.’ Nowadays there are gurus who are like celebrities, who spearhead mass movements, control large and powerful institutions, have avid followers ostensibly numbering in the millions. There are also largely inaccessible gurus, who retreat from the world in remote caves and snowy peaks, who teach and transmit only when they are sought out or are otherwise inspired. There are those who do not hold themselves out as gurus or as spiritual savants at all, who are like plainclothes gurus, with none of the outer accoutrements of a swami or a sadhu but who are no less enlightened or spiritually powerful.
My guru is of this last variety. I met him over ten years ago. He did not present himself to me as a guru. We were working on a project related to Hindu activism together. Within the span of a few conversations, I knew he would have a deep impact on my life and that he would indeed change my life forever. Soon after, I felt he was my guru. He does not call himself my guru or anyone’s guru—he is loath to use that term in describing himself. He does not want that kind of position or authority, either in society or in anyone’s individual life. But he lets me (sometimes) call him my guru. From that point, over ten years ago, we began corresponding, conversing, meeting regularly and have sustained this interaction over the years.
It is difficult for me to characterize my relationship with my guru. He has never initiated me into a mantra. (He never got a mantra from his guru either, who was amongst 20th century India’s most respected Mathadipatis as one who has attained the highest realization). He has never prescribed me a specific ritualistic practice or regimen—although he has taken great pains to introduce me to others who, with his approval and at his request, have provided me these instructions and initiations. We do not spend much time talking about abstract philosophy (mostly because I am not very interested in abstract philosophy). Nor does he narrate to me devotional stories from the Puranas or the like (mostly because he is not interested in such things). He does not urge me to go to temples or on pilgrimages or to do various pujas. (In fact, I try dragging him to temples and on pilgrimages with limited success. He acknowledges his gratitude for having done these pilgrimages and having these darshanas, which otherwise he would never have done. Disciples have as much to teach gurus as the other way around, he has always said, a refrain that he picked up from a beloved old Swami, who as a young man of 77, taught him Vedanta and so much else about the life spiritual.)
We talk of “shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings,” as my guru would say. With my guru, a seemingly casual conversation about seemingly trivial things is often in fact a discourse of great spiritual import. And this is how I have learned that there is no real distinction between what is “spiritual” and what is “mundane.” My guru will watch a sitcom (even something trashy like Two and a Half Men, for which I have severely reprimanded him on occasion) and get more epiphanies out of it than I would from reading the Bhagavad Gita a dozen times. This is a concrete manifestation of his seeing the divine in everything and understanding that Vasudeva sarvam iti (loosely, Vasudeva (or Iswara) is Everything).
A large part of my guru’s advice to me has centered on ensuring that I do my best when it comes to my career. This used to puzzle me, because I did not see how important my career was to my sadhana (spiritual practice). Now I better understand that he does not want me to use spirituality as escapism, as a crutch, to avoid the “real world”, and that to be successful in sadhana, I also have to be successful in navigating the world of business and the politics of the workplace. Since I was born and raised in the US, he has repeatedly told me, “Go to Vietnam and get the Congressional Medal of Honor, then say ‘war is hell’. Otherwise, you will have no credibility.” His refrain always is that neither spiritual life nor secular life can be compartmentalized into pieces that are sadhana / non-sadhana or spiritual / non-spiritual.
Whether or not we are talking about sadhana or matters spiritual, my guru is always teaching and transmitting. The extent to which I can catch and absorb these teachings and transmissions is based on my adhikara and receptiveness. The sun is always shining; it is up to the plant to turn towards the sun and have that capacity to catch and hold the rays. I often miss a lot. I know that, but the purpose of sadhana is to increase my capacity to receive and absorb and to keep improving. It is only because of my guru’s blessings that I am able to do my sadhana, to take small steps along the path of spiritual growth. It is through his grace that I have received the mantras, from diverse spiritual savants, that are the foundation of my practice, the instructions on puja and worship that form my daily routine of worship. It is through his good wishes that I am able to build on this slowly over time.
Sometimes, when I say this, people will think that I am dependent on my guru, that I am putting my life and wellbeing solely in his hands. But it is not like that. If my guru were not there, someone else or something else would have been there to play the same role. Gurus appear out of the void when the student is ready, my guru has always maintained. For me, the source of everything is Sri Krishna / Iswara. It is my karma that manifests as the causes and conditions in my life, and it is Sri Krishna / Iswara’s grace that provides me what I need when I need it. As Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita 9.22, “ananyas cintayanto mam / ye janah paryupasate / tesham nityabhiyuktanam yoga-ksemam vahamyaham” (But those who always worship Me with exclusive devotion, meditating on My transcendental form—to them I carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have.)
I look upon my guru as a gift that Sri Krishna has bestowed upon me. But that does not in any way detract from the profound gratitude, reverence, and great love I feel for my guru. I at once feel a great love for my guru that is personal to him, that is attributable to his being who he is, but also an understanding that whatever I receive from him, whatever I see in him, whatever my relationship is with him, is very much a manifestation of my own karmas and vrttis. I am ultimately responsible for my own karma and the fruits thereof (the good and the bad). I will always owe him a great karmic debt that I can never hope to repay; I will always have deep gratitude for his presence in my life; however, I am not beholden to him in the sense of there being any strings attached or “dependent” on him as an individual, as the word is conventionally understood. That I do not owe any debt or obligation, express or implied, is something that he has taken great pains to emphasize from the beginning of our interaction.
I received mantra initiation from two Vaisnava acharyas. One is the world-renowned Bhagwat Bhaskara Sri Krishna Chandra Shastri-ji, commonly referred to as Thakurji, who was introduced and recommended to me by my guru, who has a very warm relationship with Thakurji. Thakurji gave me a beautiful way in which to think about the guru-shishya relationship. He said, ‘the guru is the one who puts your hand in Iswara’s hand’. Therefore, the object of worship, the goal to be attained, is always only Iswara, but there is a deep gratitude and reverence for the guru as the one who brings you to Him / Her.
My guru, who is extremely clinical and unemotional in attitude, told me once that, several years after his guru had passed away, he visited his Samadhi-adhisthana / final resting place. While he was meditating there, a few tears spontaneously rolled down his face. His friend / fellow traveler / guru bhai, someone of exceptional spiritual attainment, happened to be there. My guru asked him why he was moved to tears since their guru, for him, represented an ideal to be attained; he had no sentimental or emotional connection with him, though he revered him. His friend, also a Vedantin of exceptional attainment, smiled and told my guru that even a message needs a vessel / conveyer and the message can never be completely independent of the conveyor or separated from the vessel in which it is delivered. In this way, my love for Sri Krishna is inextricably bound up with my love for my guru; for, without one, I could never have found the other.
In the ten years that I have known my guru, several times he almost left me or I almost left him. These were times when my ego or emotional negativity reared up and I was awash in tamas. Shortly after I had met him, I had gone on a pilgrimage to Puri, and when I was at the great Sri Jagannath temple there, I prayed to Sri Jagannath to give me the strength and clarity so that I could always follow my guru, so that he would never let go of my hand. I believe it is that sankalpa (resolution, vow), that heartfelt prayer, that steadied the boat so many times when I was on the verge of falling, that kept my relationship with my guru intact.
But I know that I cannot take for granted my relationship with my guru. There was a time when I was adamant that he would have to be my guru for life, that if he were not, it would mean I was somehow a total failure. Now I have grown up a little bit and know that people come into one’s life for a reason, a season or a lifetime, and you never quite know until the end which it is. My guru has no selfish interest in me, there is nothing he wants from me for himself—the day he feels he is no longer of any utility to me, I know he would walk away from me. He has told me this numerous times. That is his nature. Or, the day that I think I have understood (when I have not) is the day he would walk away. Or, the day something other than sadhana becomes more important to me is the day he would walk away. Any day I tell him to leave, he would leave immediately. It is not that he is capricious or that he would not be there for me or that he would no longer wish me well or care about me; it is his nature as an avadhuta—‘come if you can, stay if you will, leave if you must’. This is the oft repeated refrain of my guru, which he got from the Old Swami who was one of his principal upagurus, for whom he has such immense love and respect.
I remember once I was with some friends and one of my guru’s friends was visiting. My friends asked him if they could ever meet his guru. He laughed and said that he did not even know if he would ever meet his guru again, so how could he promise anything to them. He was not perturbed by this. Rather, he was grateful for whatever time he had gotten with his guru and resigned to whatever ‘causes and conditions’ would bring them together to meet again or keep them apart. This is an attitude borne of spiritual maturity, in which one does not try to hold on to one’s guru, like the proverbial bird which you let fly out of your hand, and if it is meant to be, the bird will come back to you if and when the time is right.
That attitude of gratitude and surrender is one to which I aspire, yet am still a long ways away from. I do not know whether my guru will be in my life a month from now, a year from now, ten years from now. Yet, even if I never see him again, nothing could ever lessen my gratitude or reverence for him and I know that whatever I have achieved in my time with him will always stay with me, that his good wishes and blessings will always be with me, that in one way or another, his kavacha (protective shield) will always guard me. He has never asked anything of me; there have never been any strings attached in what he has taught and shared with me; he has never made me beholden to him or dependent on him. He has taken great pains to make sure I can stand on my own—not only that, but he has taken great pains to make sure I keep my individual personality, that my psyche does not become unduly influenced by his, and that I am always my own person and true to myself. My spiritual path or way is significantly different from his, and he has always been careful to keep me on my path.
There is a tendency to glorify, idolize and make into a god one’s guru. My guru has always warned me against that. One of my favorite passages about the role of a guru is one that my guru likes to quote, from a book that he urged me to read. It is a wonderful book (a must-read book for any spiritual aspirant) called “The Way of the White Clouds,” a spiritual travelogue and memoir by Lama Angarika Govinda (a German) about his initiation into Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism:
On the day on which he (Domo Geshe Rimpoche) formally accepted me as his Chela, he said:
'If you wish me to be your Guru, do not look upon my person as Guru, because every human personality has its shortcomings, and so long as we are engaged in observing the imperfections of others we deprive ourselves of the opportunities of learning from them. Remember every being carries within itself the spark of Buddhahood (bodhicitta), as long as we concentrate on other people's faults we deprive ourselves of the light that in various degrees shines out from our fellow-beings.
'When searching for a teacher, we surely should search for one who is worthy of our trust, but once we have found him, we should accept whatever he has to teach us as a gift of the Buddhas, and we should look upon the Guru not as one who speaks with his own voice but as mouthpiece of the Buddha, to whom alone all honour is due. Therefore if you bow down before the Guru, it is not the mortal personality of the teacher that you worship, but the Buddha, who is the eternal Guru who reveals his teaching through the mouth of your human teacher who forms a living link in the chain of initiated teachers and pupils who have transmitted the Dharma in an unbroken line from the times of Sakyamuni. Those who transmit to us the teachings of the Buddha are the vessels of the Dharma, and as far as they master the Dharma and have realised the Dharma within themselves, they are the embodiment of the Dharma.’
When I was a child and a teenager, I kept reading in our Hindu scriptures and in texts by spiritual masters how necessary a guru is for spiritual enlightenment. This made a deep impact on me. I remember telling my parents, “I need to find a guru.” I fretted about how, as a young girl in
America, I would ever find a guru or be worthy of a guru, since I had no real spiritual qualifications, only spiritual aspirations. I envisioned making a Himalayan odyssey to remote mountains and glaciers to track down a guru. I was naïve then, but something in my plaintive pleas that I needed a guru, must have had enough power, enough persuasion, to move Iswara to bring my guru to me without me having to look for him. This was how I realized that you can never go hunting for a guru; the guru comes to you when you are ready in the form that is appropriate for you. I believed, simplistically, as a child that a guru is necessary simply because the books told me so. I had faith in those texts, and I think that faith is what helped bring my guru to me.
If I were asked today, is a guru necessary, my answer would be somewhat different. I realize now that there are no categorical answers or rules in Dharma, that there are cases of spontaneous enlightenment or cases where having the wrong guru at the wrong time (if such a guru can be called a guru) could do more harm than good. I also think that there has been an unfortunate growth in the trend of having “trophy gurus,” that as spirituality grows more fashionable people pick up gurus like accessories to gain more currency and status in the spiritual world. Having a guru is not a metric of spiritual success. When and how a guru comes varies depending on the person’s spiritual path and psyche. Sometimes a guru comes at the end of a long road of spiritual ripening, to give the final blessing, before the journey has ended. In my case, on the other hand, I needed a guru much earlier to steer me on the right course. It was my blessing that such a guru came to me when I needed him.
With all those caveats, I would still say that, in general, a guru is necessary at least for some part of the spiritual path for most people. What a guru gives you cannot be found in any book, in any ritual, in any temple, no matter how sacred or powerful. A guru understands you better than you understand yourself. He or she knows what you need when you need it, often before you know it. He or she knows when you need to do more sadhana and when you need to cut back, when the quantum of japa / bhajan / puja is to be modified, when the type of sadhana itself is to be altered. You can read and memorize all the texts in the world, but it does not have the power of a single moment when a guru addresses to you a particular shloka that is necessary for you at that moment. That carries the portent and energy that the guru intends for you and not just the surface meaning embedded in the words themselves. It can be analogized as the difference between knowing general health guidelines from a medical text and having a personal doctor, between exercising and having a personal trainer, but those are incomplete analogies because there is something more, something that is unique to the guru relationship, and that is the principle of transmission. A guru is not a mere teacher or a coach; a guru gives something of himself or herself to a shishya, his or her energy, karma, the merits of his or her practice and so on, and this has a transformative impact on the shishya.
Adi Sankara Bhagavadpada says in Sarva Vedanta Siddhanta Sara Samgraha that on the spiritual path one may have many spiritual counselors. All of them are to be respected and considered one’s mentors. But the true guru is the one who opens one’s eyes to Wisdom. He alone is the jnana guru or the real guru. In Zen: Dawn in the West (which is another must-read book for any spiritual aspirant), Roshi Philip Kapleau, a renowned Zen master in America responds to a questioner who has asked how to be sure than an enlightened roshi is the right teacher for him or her: “A roshi may be deeply enlightened, with many followers, and yet be the wrong teacher for you. Why? Because he fails to arouse in you feelings of confidence and devotion so that you can willingly bow down before him and, childlike, receive his teaching. You must be able to say with conviction, “He is the teacher for me—the one I’ve been searching for!” And yet it is also true that the moment you spontaneously cry out, “Oh help me! I need help!” you open yourself to the teacher right for you.”
When it comes to spiritual transmission, many people often think of Shaktipath (the transfer of Shakti (spiritual energy) from guru to shishya). But that is just one of many kinds of transmission. A guru transmits to a receptive student not just energy, but his or her samskaras (deep-seated tendencies, inclinations), vrttis (waves of thoughts / feelings), ethos, and worldview. If I am in a spiritually uplifted mood, and I speak, my words in essence would be those of my guru, which are the words of his guru, and his guru’s guru and so forth. The bottle may change over time and across cultures, but the wine is always the same. This has always been the threnody of spiritual practice of all the forest religions out of India.
It is this tradition of transmission that connects not just the shishya to the guru but that forms a lineage, a parampara of gurus and shishyas extending over centuries and millennia, in fact for all time, that connects me to my guru’s gurus all the way back to Adi Sankara and beyond to Adi Shiva / Iswara. There are thousands of sampradayas in our Sanatana Dharma (the Eternal Faith); they are kept alive through the paramparas (lineages) and the unbroken chain of transmission from gurus to shishyas. This living tradition, this heritage of initiation and transmission, is perhaps more vital to the continuity and survival of Sanatana Dharma than even its most canonical texts, because it is in the guru that these texts come alive and have power.
What I fear is that as the world becomes more modernized, more Westernized, more governed by mass communication, we are under threat of losing the one-on-one guru-shishya tradition that is relatively alien to the West but that has been the cornerstone of Eastern spiritual traditions. There is nowadays, especially in the West, an aversion to the idea of having a guru. Part of it is the primacy of individualism in the West, the abhorrence of the idea of surrendering to or placing oneself at the feet of another human being, an ethos that values the sense of being independent and self-sufficient. Part of it is a fear and distrust of relegating too much authority in any human being, particularly religious figures, given the widespread abuse by priests in the Catholic Church in particular. This cannot easily be glossed over, and it may be the case that as Hinduism develops and grows in the West, the guru tradition will have less prominence and importance than it has traditionally had in the East. If that is the case, I do feel something will be irrevocably lost, something intrinsic and core to our Dharma. I cannot imagine what my spiritual life would be without my guru, and I cannot imagine what our Dharma would be without the system of initiation and transmission that is crystallized in the guru-shishya parampara.
And so, on this Guru Purnima, I want to honor and offer my prostrations to, not just my own guru, but to all gurus—a guru is not a person but a relationship in which one gives of oneself to another to remove their darkness (the literal meaning of “guru”), in which the shishya surrenders himself or herself to the guru—in the hope and prayer that the guru-shishya tradition is preserved and revitalized in the years, decades and centuries to come. There may be an infinite variety of guru-shishya relationships, but there is a common principle, ethos and dynamic that underlies them all. This is what has tied together our Dharma for so long.
And so today, I offer my prostrations to my guru, to my guru’s gurus, to Adi Sankara, who is the adi guru of my parampara, and to Veda Vyasa, who classified the Vedas, who is the first guru for all Hindus, in whose special honor Guru Purnima is observed.
GURUR BRAHMA, GURUR VISHNU,
GURUR DEVO MAHESHWARAH
GURUR SAAKSHAAT PARA-BRAHMA,
TASMAI SHRI GURUVE NAMAH!
 Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds, Pages 68-69.
The author received a B.A. in International Relations, magna cum laude, from Tufts University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. She is a practicing attorney in the greater New York area. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the World Association for Vedic Studies (WAVES). She is a co-editor of Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America. She has published several essays in Outlook India. She is interested in the preservation and revival of the spiritual practices and traditions associated with Sanatana Dharma. Her blog is http://sadhanareflections.blogspot.in/2013/03/reflections-on-maha-shivaratri.html
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